EDITORIAL: New Evangelization must get personal

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The “New Evangelization” refers to sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a people or culture that has forgotten its Christian roots.

Saint John Paul II popularized the term during his efforts to reawaken European countries to Christianity, a faith that once animated and infused many nations which have since grown cold to the Gospel.

Much of what passes as New Evangelization comes in the form of official church outreaches, youth programming, parish initiatives and other organized efforts. These can be effective, and in some cases extraordinarily so, but they don’t involve the majority of Catholic parishioners.

So the rank and file laity is often at a loss for how to share their Catholic faith without coming off as a pushy preacher or that fundamentalist zealot whom most just want to avoid.

There is truth in the quote often ascribed to Saint Francis of Assisi — “Share the Gospel, and when necessary use words.” Most take that to mean we should serve the poor, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, love our neighbors and visit those in prison. These are the staples of true Christian charity. If we fail in this, then our faith is dead and fruitless.

But there are times when we sense the urge to take the next step, to speak of that which we believe — of Him whom we love.

Often this happens not with perfect strangers, but with someone we have come to know. In such cases we are not preaching to the masses, or handing tracts to the passersby. We are venturing to share our deepest convictions with someone who knows us.

This is harder — riskier — than evangelizing the “culture.” Sitting face-to-face with a family member, an old friend or a colleague is different from knocking on a stranger’s door or debating with an acquaintance in the break room.

Our closest friends have seen our virtues and our warts, our acts of kindness and our petty pride. Hang out with someone long enough and you notice the fruits of their life. In these cases, it is not enough to think of evangelization as reacquainting a once Christian culture with the long-forgotten Gospel.

These one-to-one encounters have no easy formulas. One person may pose a historical question about the source of the pope’s authority. Another may wonder about the role of Mary and the saints in a Catholic’s life. Still others may want to know how receiving the church’s sacraments brings one closer to God. Often people raise objections with the church’s moral teachings on marriage, sexuality and unborn life.

In each of these cases, we must be prepared to provide an honest answer to what we have come to know and love as the truth. We may not have all the historical facts or theological answers. That’s fine. These moments are opportunities to look more deeply into what we believe and then come back with more to share.

In many cases, though, people just want to know what difference being a Catholic has made in our lives. How does it draw us closer to the life of Christ, how does it feed our soul, give us hope, inspire us to love, forgive and heal more fully.

Evangelicals speak of “sharing their testimony” with others. While this can sometimes come off as a rehearsed narrative of one’s spiritual highlights, it needn’t be so.

Sharing our testimony is really just speaking freely about our faith and how it infuses and colors the moments of our life. Whether we speak of our joys, challenges or sorrows, our faith should be the animating force behind all else.

So what does that mean in a real conversation?

It simply means that we do not overly censor our language or whitewash all mention of God from our interactions with those who may not believe as we do. No, we shouldn’t overly spiritualize our interactions. We are flesh and blood, but we are also on a spiritual journey. This is worth mentioning, especially in polite conversation.

The challenge of sharing our faith is not new. Saint Paul has this to say in his letter to the early Christians of Rome. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” he writes. “But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?”

The writer is editor of the Catholic Anchor, the newspaper and news website of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska

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